Reply: Who killed bilingual education?

Pro and con arguments concerning what led to the end of bilingual education in California

Echo Park, Calif.—Professor Acuna’s anger at my assessment that intransigent, self-righteous, old guard activists are partly responsible for creating the backlash against bilingual education evidently kept him from reading my article with any clarity.

First off, I never said that CABE was “the powerhouse behind the campaign for bilingual education.” Indeed, I wrote that CABE is not currently “on the front lines of the battle” to save bilingual education. Nor did I assert that Latino voters would ultimately support the initiative at the ballot box. I wrote, “Many long-time observers have predicted that the Latino vote will be split.” Moreover, I made a prominent reference to one highly respected Latino political scientist who predicted that “the No on Unz campaign may still be able to garner a majority of Latino votes if it is able to reframe the ballot measure as anti-immigrant or anti-Latino.” In short, I was acknowledging that campaign strategy would play a significant role in determining how Latino voters would decide on the measure.

As for Acuna’s disagreeing that the Republican leadership shied away from supporting the Unz initiative–he calls my assessment “nonsense”–I remind him that conservative Dan Lungren, California’s Republican gubernatorial nominee, has opposed the Unz initiative.

Acuna then takes issue with my charge that “bilingual lobbyists were more concerned with preserving the program than making sure it was benefiting the children it served.” I plead guilty to cynicism in this regard. Acuna himself says that he supports bilingual education because he believes it helps children and then he implies that it isn’t quite working because of poor funding and bad teachers. Is it helping children or isn’t it? And does Acuna have any evidence other than painful childhood memories? I defer to the National Research Council’s 1997 study, which states that “evaluations have proven inconclusive about which teaching approaches work best.” Acuna may not understand that while most education scholars do agree that primary language instruction can be an effective method in teaching children English, it has yet to be proved that the pedagogy can be practiced effectively on a wide scale.

Furthermore, Acuna has a problem with my statement that “even bilingual-education supporters don’t think the current system is working.” I can only refer him to the CABE official who told me that “perhaps 10 percent or fewer of the state’s bilingual programs are well implemented.” Acuna’s beef, then, is with CABE, not me. While it is easier to resort to

innuendo and the specter of right-wing bogymen than to recognize one’s own role in a failed strategy, the good news is that contemporary Latino leaders have come a long way since Acuna was actively involved in Latino politics. In contrast to Acuna’s pitiable strategy of pawning off all blame on one more vast right-wing conspiracy, Antonio Villaraigosa, the powerful Mexican-American Speaker of the California State Assembly, has sought to defeat the Unz initiative by recognizing the shortcomings of bilingual education and pushing reform of the program. The Speaker, whose wife is a bilingual teacher, has publicly declared that “Ron Unz is a decent man” and, unlike Acuna, has argued against the initiative on the merits.

More important, however, Villaraigosa chose not to let the state’s Democratic and Latino leaders sit on their hands during yet another ballot initiative and, like Acuna, blindly defend the current state of affairs. “It is not a perfect solution” Villaraigosa said of the reform bill. “But neither is the Unz initiative; neither is the status quo”

I have written in the past that the best way to save bilingual education would be to mend it before someone comes along to end it. The Speaker evidently agrees. Whereas in the past liberal Latino activists and the state Latino Legislative Caucus vehemently opposed any and all attempts to reform bilingual education, this past April the majority of Latino legislators voted for reform. Unfortunately, it has come too late. I stated in my piece that “California’s initiative process is usually the worst way to solve complex problems.” I also wrote that the Unz initiative “could still become the instrument by which an overwhelmingly Anglo electorate asserts its displeasure with the state’s Latino-bound demographic metamorphosis.” That doesn’t excuse Chicano activists like Acuna for their role in making bilingual education a sacred cow for so long. They bear at least partial responsibility for the death of bilingual education in California at the polls this June.

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